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EXCLUSIVE: 22 U.S. senators call for marriage equality plank in Dem platform

Feinstein, Kerry, Cardin among those expressing support; list continues to grow

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein is among the U.S. senators backing the inclusion of marriage equality in the Democratic Party platform. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A group of U.S. senators is joining the wave of LGBT rights supporters calling for an endorsement of marriage equality in the Democratic Party platform.

The Washington Blade received statements from the offices of 22 Democratic senators — including Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) — expressing support for including a marriage equality plank in the Democratic Party platform. The Blade solicited statements from all 53 Democratic senators and will update this article as more senators respond.

The senators follow the lead of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who on Tuesday became the first U.S. senator this year to get behind the idea of including same-sex marriage in the Democratic Party platform. Shaheen, who’s also a co-chair of President Obama’s national campaign committee, said she backs a plank in support of marriage equality proposed by the LGBT organization Freedom to Marry.

In addition to calling for an inclusion of marriage equality in the Democratic Party platform, the language also backs overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and passing DOMA repeal legislation known as the Respect for Marriage Act in addition to opposing state constitutional amendments aimed at blocking gay couples from marriage rights.

The 22 senators are Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

The platform committee is set to discuss and agree upon language in the Democratic Party platform when it gathers for the Democratic National Convention Sept. 3 in Charlotte, N.C. Officials with Democratic National Committee have declined to comment on whether the platform will be “marriage-equality inclusive.

A number of senators issued statements to the Blade saying they want marriage equality in the Democratic Party platform without offering an explicit endorsement of language as proposed by Freedom to Marry:

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)

“I support a pro-marriage equality plank. Discrimination in our marital laws or otherwise against any Coloradan or American because of sexual orientation is unacceptable. Two people who want to enter into a loving committed relationship should be afforded the same legally recognized rights and benefits I enjoys with my wife.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)

“I strongly support marriage equality and efforts to make that a reality for all Americans, including adding marriage equality language to our party’s platform. I was proud to be one of the 14 senators who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, and we cannot stop until we repeal this unjust law and start treating all our families with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.)

“Of course marriage equality should be a part of the Democratic Party platform. It should be a part of the Republican Party platform, too. Whom you love should have no bearing on your access to the equal rights due every American citizen. It is time the law recognizes what the majority of Americans already recognize is a human right: marrying the person you love. Democrats have led the way in significant marriage equality victories in the states these last few years, so for the Democratic Party to not include marriage equality in our platform now would be to miss an important opportunity to reinforce and strengthen our continued national leadership on the issue.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)

“As the author of the bill to repeal DOMA and one of 14 senators who voted against DOMA in 1996, I strongly believe marriage equality should be part of the Democratic platform.”

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.)

“Marriage equality is one of the most significant civil rights battles of our time, and the Democratic Party must address this issue in its platform. The New Jersey legislature bravely passed legislation to provide marriage equality in our state, and I have co-sponsored legislation in the Senate to repeal DOMA. We will continue this fight until same-sex couples have the right to marry and every family in our country is provided the same legal protections.”

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.)

“Fundamentally, I do not view this as an issue of special rights, but simply one of equal rights. No American should have to wait outside a hospital room while their loved one suffers inside. No American should lose their inheritance simply because the federal government does not recognize the couple’s marriage. No child should feel that their parents are somehow less equal under the law than their best friend’s parents. This kind of discrimination cannot be tolerated in our society as a matter of law. Our world is changing and our society must change with them. I fully support making marriage equality a fundamental piece of the Democratic Party platform.”

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.)

“As you may know, Maryland recently passed legislation legalizing same sex marriage. Consistent with that, I would support the inclusion of language in the Democratic platform that calls for the repeal of DOMA, and the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act. I would also support language stating clearly that all Americans deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and that all Americans are entitled to equal protection under the law, guaranteed by our Constitution.” (Rachel MacKnight, a Mikulski spokesperson, clarified her boss wants the inclusion of marriage equality in the Democratic Party platform.)

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)

“Equality is something that has always been a hallmark of America and no group should be deprived it. Marriage equality is no different and it’s time for our nation to recognize that.” (Mike Morrey, a Schumer spokesperson, confirmed the senator wants same-sex marriage in the Democratic Party platform.)

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)

“As a co-sponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act, one of 14 senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act, and a longtime believer in allowing all people the freedom to marry the one they love, I encourage the Democratic Party to stand together with those who want equality in marriage so they don’t have to face this battle alone.”

Other senators — including two where same-sex marriage was recently signed into law — went further and sent statements saying they back language as proposed by Freedom to Marry.

Freedom to Marry’s proposed language, included as part of its “Democrats: Say I Do!” campaign that was launched Feb. 13, follows. According to the organization, more than 28,000 people have the signed online petition in support of the language.

“The Democratic Party supports the full inclusion of all families in the life of our nation, with equal respect, responsibility, and protection under the law, including the freedom to marry. Government has no business putting barriers in the path of people seeking to care for their family members, particularly in challenging economic times. We support the Respect for Marriage Act and the overturning of the federal so-called Defense of Marriage Act, and oppose discriminatory constitutional amendments and other attempts to deny the freedom to marry to loving and committed same-sex couples.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)

“I believe in equality for all families and think we should be looking at ways to expand civil rights, not reduce them. I’m fully supportive of the language in question.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.)

“Yes, I support the inclusion of such language in the Democratic Party platform. I am a cosponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act that would repeal DOMA and I am dedicated to ensuring protections against any form of discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This is consistent with the Maryland legislature’s passage of legislation to legalize same-sex marriage.”

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.)

“I think this is an historic moment for the Democratic Party in our commitment to equal opportunity and our opposition to discrimination. In its significance, it’s not unlike the floor fight Hubert Humphrey led at the Democratic convention in 1948 to make clear the Party’s commitment to civil rights for African Americans, but the difference is that back then we were a Party divided, whereas now I think it’s a mainstream Democratic position to care about these protections for gay Americans, and I’m proud of that. We’ve made big strides. We ended Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and that put a close to an era that one day will seem as antiquated as the days before President Truman desegregated the military. When we pass the Respect for Marriage Act, so too will the era of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act be anachronistic in a country where we don’t believe there should be any second class citizens. I support marriage equality and I think Massachusetts has taught the country an important lesson about how marriage equality can work. I was pleased to see New York and Washington follow that example. No one should be worried about a party platform that celebrates those advances.” (Whitney Smith, a Kerry spokesperson, said her boss supports Freedom to Marry’s language.)

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.)

“Fighting against discrimination in all its forms, including discrimination based on sexual orientation, is a hallmark of our party. I support passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, and I support efforts to ensure that government does not interfere with the freedom to marry.” (Tara Andringa, a Levin spokesperson, said her boss believes the platform committee should adopt the language proposed by Freedom to Marry.)

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)

“I strongly support marriage equality for all Americans. It’s a question of fundamental fairness and the bedrock principle that we are all the same under the law. It should be part of the platform.” (Julie Edwards, a Merkley spokesperson, said her boss supports Freedom to Marry’s effort.)

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.)

“As a co-sponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act and a strong believer that we should be focused on broadening the civil rights of all Americans, this is certainly language that I would support.”

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.)

“This is an issue the American people are ahead of us on. It’s about time that our big tent party make it clear in its platform that every American, regardless of sexual orientation, should have the ability to marry the person they love, to make that public promise of commitment and mutual accountability in front of their family and friends, affirming their dedication to their partner by accepting the responsibility of marriage. I believe these bonds help strengthen our society.” (Jennifer Tallheim, a Udall spokesperson, said the senator supports Freedom to Marry’s proposed plank.)

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) in a statement from Freedom to Marry:

“I’m proud to join Freedom to Marry’s ‘Democrats: Say, I Do’ campaign. Along with the more than 20,000 Americans who have already signed the online petition, I call on the Democratic Platform Committee to affirm the freedom to marry in our party’s national convention platform this September.  Any Democratic statement of core beliefs about the importance of families must include all our families, gay and straight.  Our party has a long tradition of leading the charge on important questions of justice.  Now is the time for the Democratic Party to stand up for the rights of same-sex couples and their families.”

Spokespersons for Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said their bosses support this language, but didn’t provide statements attributable to their respective senators.

Similarly, Bethany Lesser, a spokesperson for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), also told the Blade her boss, the Senator, supports the plank as written by Freedom to Marry.

“As a lead sponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act, and a tireless advocate in the fight to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, Sen. Gillibrand is helping to lead the fight for equality in the Senate,” Lesser said. “There will be a clear contrast in this election between the two parties on issues of equality, justice and fairness.”

Kate Cyrul, a spokesperson for Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), said her boss supports including marriage equality in the Democratic Party platform, but isn’t endorsing any specific platform language. Ed Shelleby, a spokesperson for Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) also said the senator support including marriage equality language in the platform.

Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, praised these senators for their endorsements and said his organization looks forward “to working with them and their Democratic colleagues to move forward this crucial plank.”

“These senators from across the nation all know firsthand that marriage matters to gay and lesbian couples, their kids, and their kin,” Wolfson said. “Their support shows real momentum among Democrats to make sure that the party does what the Democratic Party does at its best — fight discrimination in all its incarnations and lead the way forward toward a more perfect union.”

The offices of other senators responded to the Blade’s solicitation in other ways. David Carle, a spokesperson for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), noted he has taken a lead role in the effort to repeal DOMA in the Senate, but added “as far as potential platform issues are concerned, no groups have discussed ideas with him.”

Spokespersons for the offices of Sens. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said they had no comment on including same-sex marriage in the Democratic Party platform. The offices of other senators didn’t immediately respond to the Blade’s solicitation.

Others who’ve endorsed a marriage equality-inclusive Democratic Party platform include House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Young Democrats of America Executive Director Emily Sussman, and the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The Huffington Post reported this week that former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold is also supportive. On Thursday, The Advocate reported that four of Obama’s national committee co-chairs — Bennet, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), and Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas) — also back including marriage equality in the Democratic Party platform.

The endorsement of these individuals puts them at odds with President Obama, who doesn’t support same-sex marriage, but continues to say he could evolve to support marriage equality. The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether Obama wants to see support for same-sex marriage in the Democratic Party platform.

NOTE: The article has been updated to reflect the growing number of senators who support including marriage equality in the Democratic Party platform.

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California

Laphonza Butler appointed as California’s first openly LGBTQ U.S. Senator

Newsom’s office confirmed that he has picked Butler, an Out Black lesbian Democratic strategist who rose to prominence in the labor movement

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EMILY’s List President Laphonza Butler speaking at EMILYs List's annual We Are EMILY National Gala, May 16, 2023. (Photo Credit: EMILY’s List/Facebook)

On Sunday evening, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced he is appointing Black openly lesbian EMILY’s List President, Laphonza Butler, to the vacant seat of the late U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein who died Friday at age 90.

Butler’s wife is Neneki Lee, the Washington D.C.-based Director for labor union SEIU’s Public Services Division.

News of Butler’s selection by Newsom was first reported by POLITICO’s California Bureau Chief Christopher Cadelago.  A source knowledgeable on the governor’s team told POLITICO there were no preconditions about whether she could run in 2024.

Newsom’s office confirmed that he has picked Butler, a Democratic strategist who rose to prominence in the labor movement, to fill Feinstein’s seat.

In an emailed statement, Governor Newsom said:

“An advocate for women and girls, a second-generation fighter for working people, and a trusted adviser to Vice President Harris, Laphonza Butler represents the best of California, and she’ll represent us proudly in the United States Senate. As we mourn the enormous loss of Senator Feinstein, the very freedoms she fought for — reproductive freedom, equal protection, and safety from gun violence — have never been under greater assault. Laphonza will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington D.C.” 

Equality California tweeted a statement praising Newsom’s action:

Democrat Alex Padilla, now serving as California’s senior U.S. Senator, released the following statement after Newsom appointed Butler to fill the vacancy created by the late Senator Feinstein: 

“Throughout her career, Laphonza Butler has been a strong voice for working families, LGBTQ rights, and a champion for increasing women’s representation in politics. I’m honored to welcome her to the United States Senate.

“Governor Newsom’s swift action ensures that Californians maintain full representation in the Senate as we navigate a narrow Democratic majority. I look forward to working together to deliver for the people of California.” 

Butler is a longtime leader in Democratic politics in California and beyond. She has been involved in campaign strategy, and the labor movement for two decades, and according to her official biography she has dedicated her life to empowering women and supporting them in finding their voice, and using it to make meaningful change.

Newsom’s office noted in its statement:

“Butler, a longtime senior adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris, labor leader, and advocate for women and working people, will be the first openly LGBTQ person to represent California in the Senate. She will also be the first Black lesbian to openly serve in Congress in American history and the second Black woman to represent California in the Senate following Vice President Kamala Harris.”

Prior to joining EMILYs List, Butler served as Director of Public Policy and Campaigns in North America for Airbnb. She also was a partner at SCRB Strategies, a political consulting firm where she was a strategist for candidates running up and down the ballot and a senior advisor to Vice President Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign.

With nearly 20 years in the labor movement, Butler has served as the president of the biggest union in California, and the nation’s largest homecare workers union, SEIU Local 2015. She was elected to this position at just 30 years old, one of the youngest to take on this role. As president, Butler was the leading voice, strategist, and architect of efforts to address pay inequity for women in California and a top advocate for raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour – the first state in the nation to do so, benefiting millions of working women in low wage jobs. That effort also gave hundreds of thousands of home workers access to paid time off. She also served as an SEIU International Vice President and President of the SEIU California State Council.

Throughout her career, Butler has been highly regarded as a strategist working to elect Democratic women candidates in political offices across California and nationally. A long-time supporter of Kamala Harris in her California runs, Butler was a key leader in Vice President Harris’s presidential campaign. She served as a senior advisor to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in California during the primary and general elections. Most recently, Butler was a campaign operative behind the campaign to make the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors all-women for the first time in its history with the election of Supervisor Holly Mitchell.

She has been a member of the University of California Board of Regents and a member of the board of directors for the Children’s Defense Fund and BLACK PAC.

Laphonza grew up in Magnolia, MS, and attended one of the country’s premier HBCUs, Jackson State University. She lives in Maryland with her wife, Neneki, and together they have a daughter, Nylah.

EMILY’s List is an American political action committee that aims to help elect Democratic female candidates in favor of abortion rights to office. It was founded by Ellen Malcolm in 1985. The group’s name is an acronym for “Early Money Is Like Yeast”. Malcolm commented that “it makes the dough rise”.

Governor Gavin Newsom Appoints Laphonza Butler to the U.S. Senate:

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State Department

State Department hosts intersex activists from around the world

Group met with policy makers, health officials, NGOs

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The State Department last week hosted a group of intersex activists from around the world. (Courtesy photo)

The State Department last week hosted five intersex activists from around the world.

Kimberly Zieselman, a prominent intersex activist who advises Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad, brought the activists to D.C.

• Morgan Carpenter, co-founder and executive director of Intersex Human Rights Australia

• Natasha Jiménez, an intersex activist from Costa Rica who is the general coordinator of Mulabi, the Latin American Space for Sexualities and Rights

• Julius Kaggwa, founder of the Support Initiative for People with Atypical Sex Development Uganda

• Magda Rakita, co-founder and executive director of Fujdacja Interakcja in Poland and co-founder of Interconnected UK

• Esan Regmi, co-founder and executive director of the Campaign for Change in Nepal.

Special U.S. Envoy for Global Youth Issues Abby Finkenauer and Assistant Health Secretary Rachel Levine are among the officials with whom the activists met.

Zieselman told the Washington Blade on Sept. 21 the activists offered State Department officials an “intersex 101” overview during a virtual briefing.

More than 60 Save the Children staffers from around the world participated in another virtual briefing. Zieselman noted the activists also met with Stern, U.N. and Organization of American States officials, funders and NGO representatives while in D.C.

“The people we met were genuinely interested,” Rakita told the Blade.

Stern in an exclusive statement to the Blade said “the visiting intersex activists clearly had an impact here at State, sharing their expertise and lived experience highlighting the urgency to end human rights abuses, including those involving harmful medical practices against intersex persons globally.” Andrew Gleason, senior director for gender equality and social justice at Save the Children US, in a LinkedIn post he wrote after attending his organization’s meeting with the activists echoed Stern.

“There are many learnings to recount from today’s discussion, but one thing is clear, this is unequivocally a child rights issue, and one that demands attention and action at the intersection of LGBTQI+ rights, reproductive rights and justice, disability justice and more,” wrote Gleason. “Gratitude to the panelists for sharing such poignant testimonies and providing insights into what organizations like ours can do to contribute to the broader intersex movement; and thank you to Kimberly for your leadership and bringing this group together.”

The activists’ trip to D.C. coincided with efforts to end so-called sex “normalization” surgeries on intersex children.

Greek lawmakers in July passed a law that bans such procedures on children under 15 unless they offer their consent or a court allows them to happen. Doctors who violate the statute face fines and prison.

Germany Iceland, Malta, Portugal and Spain have also enacted laws that seek to protect intersex youth. 

A law that grants equal rights and legal recognition to intersex people in Kenya took effect in July 2022. Lawmakers in the Australian Capital Territory earlier this year passed the Variation in Sex Characteristics (Restricted Medical Treatment) Bill 2023.

Intersex Human Rights Australia notes the law implements “mechanisms to regulate non-urgent medical care to encourage child participation in medical decisions, establish groundbreaking oversight mechanisms and provide transparency on medical practices and decision making.” It further points out the statute “will criminalize some deferrable procedures that permanently alter the sex characteristics of children” and provides “funding for necessary psychosocial supports for families and children.”

“It’s amazing,” Carpenter told the Blade when discussing the law and resistance to it. “It’s not perfect. There was some big gaps, but physicians are resisting every step of the way.”

The State Department in April 2022 began to issue passports with an “X” gender marker.

Dana Zzyym, an intersex U.S. Navy veteran who identifies as non-binary, in 2015 filed a federal lawsuit against the State Department after it denied their application for a passport with an “X” gender marker. Zzyym in October 2021 received the first gender-neutral American passport.

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Federal Government

Federal government prepares for looming shutdown

White House warns of ‘damaging impacts across the country’

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U.S. Capitol Building (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

However remote they were on Monday, odds of avoiding a government shutdown were narrowed by Thursday evening as House Republicans continued debate over their hyper-partisan appropriations bills that stand no chance of passage by the Upper Chamber.

As lawmakers in the Democratic controlled Senate forged ahead with a bipartisan stop-gap spending measure that House GOP leadership had vowed to reject, the federal government began bracing for operations to grind to a halt on October 1.

This would mean hundreds of thousands of workers are furloughed as more than 100 agencies from the State Department to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation roll out contingency plans maintained by the White House Office of Management and Budget. On Thursday the Office of Personnel Management sent out memos to all agencies instructing them to ready for a shutdown on Sunday.

Before 1980, operations would continue per usual in cases where Congress failed to break an impasse over spending, as lapses in funding tended to last only a few days before lawmakers brokered a deal.

Since then, the government has shut down more than a dozen times and the duration has tended to become longer and longer.

“Across the United States, local news outlets are reporting on the harmful impacts a potential government shutdown would have on American families,” the White House wrote in a release on Thursday featuring a roundup of reporting on how the public might be affected.

“With just days left before the end of the fiscal year, extreme House Republicans are playing partisan games with peoples’ lives and marching our country toward a government shutdown that would have damaging impacts across the country,” the White House said.

The nature and extent of that damage will depend on factors including how long the impasse lasts, but the Biden-Harris administration has warned of some consequences the American public is likely to face.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, for example, warned: “There is no good time for a government shutdown, but this is a particularly bad time for a government shutdown, especially when it comes to transportation.”

Amid the shortage of air traffic controllers and efforts to modernize aviation technology to mitigate flight delays and cancellations, a government shutdown threatens to “make air travel even worse,” as Business Insider wrote in a headline Thursday.

Democratic lawmakers including California Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters, meanwhile, have sounded the alarm in recent weeks over the consequences for the global fight against AIDS amid the looming expiration, on Oct. 1, of funding for PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

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